Portrait of the artists and some others Art review: Raoul Middleman turns his eye on the personalities of the local art community. Some fare better than others.

February 09, 1996|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Want to spend quality time with the movers and shakers of the Baltimore art world? Painter Raoul Middleman gives you the chance through an exhibit of his portraits of museum directors, artists, curators and other prominent figures on the local scene.

Among the notable aspects of his show at the Steven Scott Gallery is that it's surely the only time you'll ever find these arts advocates rendered speechless.

Mr. Middleman's expressive brushwork speaks for them. Wielding a brush as if he were an Old West gunslinger, Mr. Middleman executes fast and furious portraits in which the sitter's personality usually comes across with uncanny incisiveness.

Take a look at his portrait of Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan. His arms crossed and an intense expression on his face, Mr. Vikan seems anxious to get back to his own work. The sense of coiled energy is even conveyed in the painter's treatment of Mr. Vikan's hair, which stays in place except for a few blond waves flying off to one side. And his large wristwatch indicates this is an administrator with appointments to keep.

But he's no scholarly nerd. You can infer the balance struck in Mr. Vikan's life between scholarly respectability and pop cultural hipness through a power red tie enlivened by its idiosyncratic pattern.

Painterly truth be told, Mr. Vikan fares better than his counterpart at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Arnold Lehman, whose physical fullness is emphasized as if this were a portrait done by Colombian artist Fernando Botero while in a bad mood.

Mr. Lehman's rather grim, straightforward gaze in this portrait fails to communicate his genial social manners and, even more odd, his imposing forehead has been dramatically creased, as if by a hatchet. As for the big ears, Mr. Lehman is in good company. For whatever reason, Mr. Middleman emphasizes swollen ears on several subjects in this show.

Faring worst of all in present company is Maryland Art Place director Jack Rasmussen. His arm thrown over the back of a chair as if for swaggering emphasis, he is melodramatically defined by his bushy black eyebrows. Black plays across sections of his face, as if he's marked by a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow, and there's black paint swirling angrily in both his jacket and the background. Looking as sinister as an operatic heavy, he doesn't resemble the jovial bureaucrat I thought I knew.

Although one of Mr. Middleman's virtues is his warts-and-all approach to his subjects, the Lehman and Rasmussen portraits are so unforgiving one wonders if the artist hasn't gotten carried away. Fortunately, most of the other portraits seem remarkably astute.

Perhaps the most convincing of all is the large portrait of fellow painter Grace Hartigan, which beautifully captures her zesty personality. Mr. Middleman gives her a head in which the piercing blue eyes, full red lips and blond mop of hair are vigorous as can be, and that head is topped by a hat that would do Bella Abzug proud. Mr. Middleman paints her clothing with hasty, slashing lines and splotches of color that make Ms. Hartigan seem to be literally wearing her status as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist.

Of the remaining subjects, one of the most tantalizing is the studio encounter between Mr. Middleman and Sun art critic John Dorsey. Considering the table-turning nature of this event, it's hardly surprising that the art critic seems pensive and a bit wary. He may be wondering whether this session will be his penance for every unkind adjective deployed while on journalistic duty.

But just as the critic's thoughts remain private here, Mr. Middleman emphasizes the essential shyness of this subject by having him pose with his limbs pulled close to his body -- not to mention the inwardness suggested by the narrow canvas.

Others depicted in the exhibit are Jody Albright, former director of the Governor's Office of Art and Culture and now director of the Office of Special Projects in the state's Department of Business and Economic Development; the artist couple Carolyn Brady and Bill Epton; Sue Hess, the president of the advocacy organization Maryland Citizens for the Arts; Sona Johnston, a curator at the BMA, and her husband, Bill, associate director of the Walters; Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art; furniture painter Tom Miller; artist Joyce J. Scott; gallery owner Steven Scott; and, aptly enough, Raoul Middleman himself, with -- what else? -- a self-portrait.

Portraits

What: "Raoul Middleman: Portraits of the Baltimore Art World"

Where: Steven Scott Gallery, 515 N. Charles St.

When: Noon-6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; by appointment; through March 30

Call: (410) 752-6218

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